Maya Taylor brings the Equal Justice Initiative to SLU

How her new club tackles the hard social justice conversations

For most student-athletes, just juggling academics and athletics can be a major challenge. or volleyball senior, Maya Taylor, however, in addition to these challenges, she also decided to start her own club called the Equal Justice League (EJL) to give SLU students the opportunity to open the discussion about social justice initiatives. 

The idea for the EJL came almost a year ago over winter break when Taylor was with her family in Oregon, long before the recent events that have led to the onset of riots and protests our country has been witness to. Taylor was having a conversation with her mom on Christmas Eve, discussing her plans for the future when she realized that other than playing professional volleyball, she had no idea. After a bit of soul-searching, Taylor discovered that her passion rests in social justice issues and how she can bring awareness to others. 

Taylor comes from a very open-minded family and her father is a cross-cultural psychologist that teaches at University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL). She feels connected to the topic because she has seen both sides of it, having a Black father and white mother. 

During the conversation at Christmas, Taylor’s mom encouraged her to email members of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Montgomery, AL, to get ideas about what she could do moving forward. Despite feeling discouraged by her assumption that “they were too busy,” she decided to do it anyway on a whim and ended getting a response from Bryan Stevenson’s associate. Receiving this response, Taylor said, really caused her to “fangirl out.” 

Bryan Stevenson is best known for being the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and being a public interest lawyer focused on human rights. He also is the author of the bestselling book, Just Mercy, about the people he represents and what the Equal Justice Initiative stands for. The movie adaptation of Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan, was released in 2019. 

In the email she received from the EJI, Taylor was encouraged to attend law school because there are so many opportunities in social justice work that could come from having a background in law. Taylor returned the email asking if the associate could say “hi” to Bryan Stevenson on Taylor’s behalf. When she agreed, Taylor said, “you would have thought One Direction had given me a personal call I was so excited.” 

It meant a lot to Taylor that someone from the EJI took the time “to be genuine to some random college kid.” The interaction with a group she idolized pushed her to want to do something at SLU immediately. St. Louis is city that experiences many of the issues that Taylor wished to address; she felt like she could do a lot of good in the area if she started a local branch of the EJI with the help of some other students. 

Taylor believes that that most important thing to do is to spread awareness out about racial and social injustices and to get the conversation started. She took the action to create the EJL at SLU by creating an Instagram account and acquiring members through word of mouth. It was a slow process and at the start of the 2020 spring semester, she had only two members. Now, there are over 15 active members that participate in Coom meetings once a week. 

Though SLU’s EJL is not an officially chartered club within the university and though, as Taylor describes, “it’s not the club with cool stuff, because I have no money,” it is a “tight knit community that wants to make a difference.” She is hoping to plan more events to get more students involved and to bring awareness to SLU’s community. The meetings cover a large variety of topics that are brought to the group by members known as “representatives.” These members are essentially the researchers that look for articles, news feeds, and other media to bring back to the group so they are able to stay up to date with current events. 

Taylor is very flexible with how the members of her club choose to participate. If you are not someone who wants to go out and find the material for the meetings, there will be other ways for you to participate. “Raising our own awareness and increasing our own education through each other is something we are working towards,” she said. At some points, the members of the club are acting as their own teachers. 

At each meeting, the group discusses topics that are often uncomfortable to talk about, but Taylor said, “that’s why we have a small knit community.” Despite the fact that she is called the president, she said, “no one is in charge of us and we all have an obligation.” If someone in the group wants to have a deeper role in the group, permission is granted. They currently have two vice presidents, two secretaries, six to seven researchers, and two people on the marketing team. This keeps everyone’s workload light because some of the material can be very emotionally draining. 

One of EJL’s vice presidents, Oteria Lawrence said, “We all come from different backgrounds and yet we’re still able to come together in this group [to] fight and raise awareness for pressing issues in society today, all the while having those hard conversations we all should be having right now more than ever.” 

Conversation at each meeting gets very deep very quickly. “It’s never going to be light, and it shouldn’t be, because it’s people’s lives,” said Taylor. Everyone that participates understands that not everyone is going to agree with everything and the point is to learn how to talk about these issues in a civilized manner. Taylor talked about how in order to truly make an impact, we have to learn how to speak to each other civilly. “No matter who you are, this is personal,” she said. 

Taylor prefaces every meeting with a disclaimer that people are emotional and may get heated, but that members need to remember that they are there to learn from each other and that they are in a safe space for these hard discussions. 

Taylor is trying to create a space for empathy and teach others how to speak passionately in a mannered tone. This hasn’t been a problem for the group, Taylor said, because the person who usually gets the most heated is herself. She said that every person in the group has a shared interest in changing things for the better. It doesn’t mean that they all agree on everything, it just means that they are learning to communicate and challenge each other with the hard topics and discussions that need to be had. 

As Taylor graduates and moves on from SLU in the spring, she is leaving the group in extremely capable hands. Lawrence said, “I envision the group staying the same, if not improving more from what we do this year. EJL will continue to work and fight together for what is right and bring to light to what’s important.” 

If you are interested in joining EJL or learning more, DM @equaljusticeleague on Instagram. Everyone is welcome and able to ease into meetings. The group meets via Zoom on Sundays at 6:30 p.m.